Terps' Maine man has paid his dues

KEN ROSENTHAL

November 10, 1992|By KEN ROSENTHAL

COLLEGE PARK -- He took one look at the place and cried. "Nothing but woods," Johnny Rhodes thought. "The middle of nowhere." On that awful first day at Maine Central Institute, his dream of attending Maryland seemed as distant as the streets of his native Washington.

Nothing prepared him for this. A prep school in Pittsfield, Maine. A winter of sub-zero temperatures. A coach who likens himself to a "little Hitler." Rhodes endured them all, and he arrives at Maryland uniquely prepared for whatever comes next.

This isn't any freshman. This is a kid who spent a year away from home after graduating from Washington's Dunbar High, a kid who took the college boards six times before attaining the score required by Maryland.

The expectations already are building around Rhodes, a 6-foot-4 guard chosen by the media as the preseason ACC Rookie of the Year. But he already has passed his greatest test, the one that for so long prevented him from becoming a Terp.

Rhodes, 20, went to MCI for one reason, and one reason only: to improve his college boards. The school, recently featured in Sports Illustrated, has become a haven for Division I prospects who fail to meet Proposition 48 standards.

A haven, in a town of 4,500, with one movie theater and one supermarket. "It's non-military, but they're in at 10:30 with the doors locked," basketball coach Max Good says. "They don't come and go like college students."

Not at a place that charges $14,200 for tuition and boarding, all but $5,000 of which can be covered through need-based financial aid. Rhodes' mother works for Blue Cross-Blue Shield. His father is an auto mechanic. Rhodes says they came up with the rest.

He could have gone to a college other than Maryland and sat out a year as a Prop 48 player. He could have gone to a junior college and cost himself two years of eligibility. But MCI -- the place where he learned to ski and ride snowmobiles -- turned out to be his best option.

Of course, it didn't seem that way at first. Rhodes wanted to return home, but his mother said no. Desperate for a friend, he renewed an acquaintance with Florida State recruit Derrick Carroll, whom he had met at Nike All-Star Camp.

MCI is a school of nearly 500 students, but only 90 are boarders. An average day for Rhodes began with breakfast at 7 a.m. He attended classes until 2:45 p.m., practiced until dinner and went to study hall from 7 to 9.

The only free time was from 9 to 10:30, and, according to Rhodes, the only thing to do was shoot pool. On weekends, he visited his host parent and watched television. That was his social life.

Basketball would seem the only healthy outlet in such a rigid environment, but Good, hellbent on discipline, made that a nightmare, too. "If a kid can play here," he boasts, "he can play for Bobby Knight."

Today, Good is joking when he calls Rhodes "that S.O.B.," but he wasn't kidding at MCI. "I think he hated me at first, because of how much I got after him," Good says. "I threatened to throw him up against a wall. He would have killed me. I'm a 5-foot-11, 185-pound old man. But I bluffed him enough, he thought it was for real."

"I think everyone hated him," Rhodes says, but MCI finished 29-1 last season and placed all 10 of its players in Division I schools. Rhodes recalls Good smashing his hand against a blackboard at halftime of a game MCI was losing to the Harvard JV. "Of course," Rhodes says with a smile, "we came out in the second half and kicked their butts."

The goal, obviously, is to make the players more diligent, on and off the court. Rhodes jokes he can withstand any eruption from Maryland coach Gary Williams -- "I'm used to all that now" -- but the larger question is whether he can withstand a college environment.

If nothing else, he learned perseverance at MCI. Rhodes never scored the necessary 700 (out of 1,600) on the SAT, but he met the Proposition 48 and Maryland admission standard (17 or higher out of 36) on the American College Test in mid-May.

"That's extreme pressure, to have to make a score on a test which, for some people, is probably unfair," Williams says. "The way the media is now, it's big news. A guy might not show it, but people are sensitive to it. Just the fact that he did it says something about Johnny."

He did it, and now some people think he'll become the first ACC freshman since Kenny Anderson to average 20 points per game. Johnny Rhodes returned from the woods, from the middle of nowhere. The wonder isn't what he'll achieve at Maryland. The wonder is he made it at all.

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